MASTERCLASS IN BUILDING CONFIDENCE
There's a huge lorry in front of you, a stressed-out white-van-man behind and a roundabout coming up, cars lurching into it from all directions. You're on a bike. Feeling confident?
Bristol's mayor George Ferguson thinks you should be: "Bristol should be a city where everyone of any age feels safe to cycle. I understand that if you are used to the enclosure of a car, cycling may feel less safe but it's easy to learn to cycle with confidence."
Learning – that's the key. It's no good repeating the endless statistics that demonstrate just how safe cycling is (that's very safe, just for the record) if people don't perceive it to be safe, they still won't do it.
So how can you get that road-confident feeling? A bit of professional cycle training is a good place to start. Thanks to local government funding in Bristol, BANES and South Gloucestershire, everyone – from wobbly beginners to seasoned commuters, from school-kids to senior citizens – can now access expert on-the-road cycle skills classes, and they're usually free.
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Last week I took to the mean streets of Hanham and Kingswood with one of South Gloucestershire's cycle skills experts to see what these classes really offer.
I've been riding on a daily basis for the last 20 years. I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about cycling on Britain's ever-charming roads. But even as I pedalling the last few hundred yards to meet her, cycling instructor Lisa Pasquill was making a mental note of several things I could be doing better. Lisa's an infectiously positive Canadian émigré, who kept pausing to ask 'Am I talking too fast?'
"Our goal is to help people build confidence about getting on their bikes, giving them the expertise and experience to feel that they know what they're doing, what their rights and obligations are as road users, and to make them feel happy about riding."
We began with a quick 'ABC' safety check of my bike, then, helmets and high-vis on, Lisa explained the basic structure of a lesson. All cycle training follows The National Standard, also called Bikeability, which begins with Level 1 –basic control skills such as swerving, emergency braking, signalling and looking behind. This is normally done off-road – we went to a nearby park.
Despite obstacles (a fallen branch, a pushchair) I passed Level 1 with flying colours. But for many beginners, this is a big step.
"We get a lot of adults who have never been out on a bike before, and think that they've left it too late to learn. They're just astonished to find that in less than two hours they can be happily riding around," says Lisa.
We moved onto the road for Level 2, looking at positioning, communication and manoeuvres such as passing parked cars, turning at junctions and choosing the correct lane. This can take a lot of courage for new riders, but Lisa reassures me that no-one is pushed out of their comfort zone.
"Whatever level people are at, that's the level we respect. It might be that a beginner's goal is just to ride on traffic-free cycle paths confidently; someone more experienced might want to work out how to get to work along the easiest possible route. We always let them progress at their own speed." As expected, Level 2 posed no major problems for me, though Lisa did notice I leave it a bit late before moving out to 'take the lane' when approaching junctions. And she saw me about to filter along the inside of a large truck. "Never, never, never!"
Throughout the lesson, Lisa rode protectively behind, acting as an extra pair of ears and eyes, and calling out friendly advice. She'll signal if you forget to, she'll make sure other road users know what's going on. It's a very reassuring way to get a taste of road riding.
We paused before level 3 (busier roads, traffic lights, roundabouts, filtering and multi-lanes), and over the rumble of traffic Lisa explained the three main themes of successful city cycling.
"The most important thing is awareness. When I bring anyone out onto the road the first thing I look for is are they aware of what's going on around them?"
For younger riders, this is reiterated with what's known as The Golden Question: 'What is happening around me, and is it safe to do what I'm about to do?'
"Staying aware is your best bet for staying safe," says Lisa. "Even in a potentially hazardous situation, if you're aware of what's going on around you, you've got more time to react. It also helps if you're in the right place in the road, so you have room to manoeuvre."
Which leads us neatly onto the second most important thing: road positioning. "This is a big part of staying safe," says Lisa, as I try to show off my best technique though various multi-lane junctions and roundabouts. "Often cyclists imagine they're inconveniencing drivers; when they first learned to ride they were taught to stay close to the kerb. This is rarely the safest place to be, so we teach people to move into primary position ('taking the lane') when it's appropriate. Some people feel instinctively that being right in the middle of the stream of traffic is a dangerous place to be. But it's often a much safer place to be, if you're going through a busy junction, say, or a roundabout. Hugging the edge of the road can be much more dangerous, so we teach people when it's appropriate to take control of the road."
The third cornerstone of good cycling is negotiation, Lisa says, before we work our way across two lanes of heavy traffic. Eye contact, a friendly thumbs-up and we're away.
"It's about working with the other traffic, not dominating them and not letting them dominate you, so that you can both get from A to B safely and efficiently. It takes confidence, knowing what you rights are and what you can reasonably expect as a fellow road user."
With the aid of clipboards and diagrams, Lisa demystified HGV- blindspots (they're everywhere) and the sacred art of filtering to the front of a traffic jam.
We kept returning to the notion of the cyclist as road-user, as a vehicle with just as much right to road space as any other.
Gradually, the lesson became more of a conversation, a two-way exchange of ideas and experience.
"It tends to be more discursive with experienced riders," says Lisa. "If I come across somebody who I think feels that they know everything, I'll approach the subject matter conversationally.
"My goal is to just to get them thinking about things – developing your cycle skills is an on-going process. I might have lots of knowledge and experience, but I'm not a perfect cyclist; we all have times when we think 'gosh I really could have handled that differently, I could have made a better choice back there'. There are some basics that are always true, but in some situations there's no obvious right or wrong answer, just different choices. Everybody can benefit from having a conversation about works and doesn't work, and what might work better."
For someone who spends her days negotiating Bristol's traffic, there's an unexpected glow of positivity surrounding Lisa. What does she get out of cycle training? "I used to drive a car, but I started commuting by bike a long time ago, and the benefits are just amazing. You have more energy, you're in a better mood, you're fitter, better off… I want to share that with others, to help them realise that there's nothing to be afraid of. What do I get out of this? I get to spend my days helping people discover the joy of cycling. I love it."
New funding means that adult cycle training sessions are now available completely free across the region. Within Bristol City Council's jurisdiction they're provided by Life Cycle UK. Call 01179 353 4580 or see www.lifecycleuk.org.uk/cycle- training-adults for more information.
In BANES cycle training comes via national provider www.cyclinginstructor.com, who offer individual lessons for those aged 16-plus, as well as group sessions for schoolchildren.
South Gloucestershire Council's Road Safety Team offer two free sessions for adults, regardless of experience, as well as training for schoolchildren. Call 01454 868449 or see www.southglos.cycletms.com for details.